A History of English Literature

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1
Reformation, and the new nation-state, English drew ahead of Latin for most
purposes, and literature became nationalist. The English poet John Milton wrote
verse in Latin, Greek and Italian, but held that God revealed Himself ‘as is his
manner, first to his Englishmen’ – God’s chosen people.
Yet when he wrote the governmental justification of the execution of King Charles
I, Milton revealed himself to educated Europe in Latin. Dr Johnson wrote verse in
Latin as well as in English. In 1788, four years after Johnson’s death, English was
spoken in Australia. Educated subjects of Queen Victoria read classical and European
languages, and those who ran her empire spoke other languages too. English became
the world’s business language in the 20th century, and though the English are often
monoglot, educated foreigners learn English, and often read English literature. When
the President of China visited England in 2011, he asked to visit Shakespeare’s birth-

Is drama literature?

Drama has been a fundamental category of Western literature since the 5th century
BC, but the question is not stupid. Words are a part of drama, but so are bodies,
moves, gestures, stage, staging and so on. In some plays, words play a small part. Not
all theatre is drama. Even in what is called text-led drama, a line may have no obvi-
ously literary quality. King Lear says in his last scene: ‘Pray you undo this button.’ The
request prompts an action, and Lear says ‘Thank you, sir.’ Eight words require the
performance of several physical actions. The words are right, but gain their power
from the immediate situation, the staged actions that go with them, and from their
place in the play as a whole. So drama is only partly literary, a point easily overlooked
by those who read no plays other than those of Shakespeare, a poetic dramatist.
Only the liter ary part of drama appears here. It diminishes, for the literary
component in English drama declines after Shakespeare. The only 18th-century
plays read today are in prose; they have plot and wit. In the 19th century, theatre was
entertainment, and poetic drama was altogether too poetic. The English take pride
in Shakespeare and pleasure in the stage, yet after 1660 the best drama in the English
to ngue is by Irishmen:Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde, Beckett.

Qualities, quantities, obligation, allocation

‘The best is the enemy of the good’, said Voltaire. As the quantity of literature
increases with population and with cheaper printing, the question of quality becomes
pressing. Literary history, however scholarly, deals largely in accepted valuations.
Another remark of Voltaire, that ancient history is no more than an accepted fiction,
applies also to literary history, though less so in its later stages. All histories of Anglo-
Saxon literature agree that the poetry is better than the prose, and discuss much the
same poems. Later periods also have some traditional arrangements; Restoration
comedy is more discussed than Restoration tragedy. Such agreements should be chal-
lenged, corrected and supplemented, but cannot be silently disregarded.
In this sense, literary history is critical-consensual, deriving from what T. S. Eliot
called ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. A literary historian who thought that
such figures as Spenser, Dryden, Walter Scott or Eliot (George or T. S.), though
historically important, were overrated could not omit them: the scope for personal
opinion is limited.


Alexander Introduction 16/11/12 2:21 pm Page 8

Free download pdf